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After a very long hiatus, I’m reviving Dinner at Dorrit’s. Check it out in its new format at it’s new home: http://dinneratdorrits.tumblr.com.

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Time for a Tea Party

No!  Not the political kind…the English afternoon kind.  At my husband’s suggestion we’re expecting a dozen or so people for tea tomorrow.  Since I’m not Marmaduke Scarlet (a special prize for anyone who identifies the reference!), preparation started days in advance.  The menu and the schedule here…recipe details to follow in subsequent posts.

Tea Menu

In addition to all the food, we plan to offer four kinds of tea: Assam tea my husband brought back from India, and pu’er, jasmine, and rose teas that we brought back from China.

Preparation for Saturday’s party started in earnest on Wednesday (although menu planning, of course, started sooner).

Wednesday

  • Baked chocolate cake (my favorite cake is best a few days after it’s baked so this worked out perfectly)
  • Made gingersnap cookie dough (it has to chill at least overnight and can be kept in the fridge for days if necessary)

Thursday

  • Baked white bread
  • Baked orange-honey tea bread
  • Made dough for tart shells
  • Baked (failed) madeleines (more on that in a future post)
  • Boiled eggs for deviled eggs
  • Baked gingersnaps
  • Started clotted cream

Friday

  • Baked whole wheat bread
  • Made lemon tarts
  • Made mayonnaise for deviled eggs and sandwiches
  • Made deviled eggs
  • Made more (failed) madeleines
  • Cooled clotted cream

Saturday (anticipated)

  • Make more (hopefully successful) madeleines
  • Assemble sandwiches
  • Skim clotted cream
  • Bake scones
  • Party!

Next up: recipes.

Somerset Fondue

My favorite fondue is the classic Swiss variety with Gruyére, Emmenthaler and Appenzeller.  My brother, though, is a rather fussy eater and finds it too sharp.  Since he was here for dinner tonight, we opted for this English variant instead.  With apple cider (some hard, some sweet) as it’s liquid base and cheddar cheese, my brother thought it sounded ok.  It was ok – but I still prefer Swiss.  I also remembered (but only after it was too late) that every fondue I’ve made from the book I got this recipe from came out too thin.  Got to remember to cut the liquid in half next time!

Recipe

Source: The Book of Fondues by Lorna Rhodes

1 small onion
1 c. hard apple cider (but I’d use considerably less – 1/2-3/4 c.)
1 tsp. lemon juice
3/4 lb. shredded Cheddar cheese (if you can get it, use a really good one, not your typical supermarket vareity – I used Cabot Clothbound this time)
1/2 tsp. dry mustard
1 tbs. cornstarch
3 tbs. sweet apple cider/juice
A little white pepper

If you bought your Cheddar whole (which is best) grate it using the grating blade of your food processor if you have one, or the course holes on a hand grater.  Cut the onion in half and rub it all over the inside of the pot in which you’re going to cook your fondue (I do it right in the fondue pot, but not all fondue pots can go directly on the stove).  Put the hard cider and lemon juice in the pot and start it heating over medium heat.  While the liquid is heating, mix together the sweet cider, cornstarch and mustard in a small bowl.  Once the liquid is hot, add the cheese a handful at a time, stirring each new addition until it melts.  At first you will see distinct bits of cheese in the liquid, but as you add more cheese it will start to smooth out.  If it starts to boil you can turn the heat down a bit.  Once all the cheese is incorporated, add the sweet cider/cornstarch/mustard mixture (give a good stir first) and a sprinkling of finely ground white pepper.  Stir the cheese until it starts to thicken.  If you used the full amount of hard cider, then this is going to end up pretty thin no matter what you do.  Serve it with apples and a good, crusty, solid bread cut into bite-sized pieces.

Happy Passover

My lovely cousins Liz & Chuck host Seder at their house so I’m mostly off the hook for cooking.  My tasks this year were super easy – matzoh ball soup and haroset.

Matzoh ball soup starts with great chicken stock.  This time I used about 8 lbs. of spare parts (mostly backs), three medium yellow onions, a couple of big parsnips, a couple of carrots, a head of celery, a giant leek, a handful of peppercorns, a dozen-ish bay leaves and a few tbs. salt.  It all went into my giant (22-24 qt.) cauldron which I then filled with water.  I let it simmer six or seven hours, then strained the stock into huge bowls and let it sit in the fridge over night.  If you let it chill long enough the fat will solidify on top and you can skim it off very easily.  I didn’t let it chill long enough so I used my de-fatter to help me.  It’s basically like a big measuring cup where the spout starts near the bottom of the container.  You pour your liquid into it and let it sit a few minutes until the fat floats to the top then you can easily pour the fat-free liquid out from underneath.  Don’t throw out your chicken fat, though!  You’ll want it for the matzoh balls.

To make the matzoh balls, beat 2 eggs with 2 tbs. chicken fat (melted if it’s solidified) and 2 tbs. chicken stock.  Add 1 tsp. salt and 1/2 c. matzoh meal and stir it all together.  Let the batter chill for an hour or so, then roll it into balls (I like to make 8 balls from this amount of batter, but if you like your matzoh balls bigger you can do just 6) and drop it into boiling chicken stock or salted water.  I like to use about half chicken stock/half water with a bit of extra salt added.  Cover and let the matzoh balls simmer for 30-40 minutes (on the shorter side if you made 8 balls and on the longer side if you made 6).  Take the matzoh balls out of the cooking liquid.  When you’re ready to serve, reheat them in fresh broth (but don’t bring it all the way to a boil).   Garnish each bowl of soup with a little chopped parsley.  If I’m serving this soup as part of a meal, I figure 2 matzoh balls per person with a few extras just in case.

Haroset is just as easy.  Put about a cup of walnut pieces in the food processor with a couple of tablespoons of sugar.  Run the processor until the nuts are coarsely ground.  Peel and core 3 large apples (firmer is better and I prefer fairly tart ones) then grate them on a coarse grater (I used the grating blade for my food processor).  Toss them with the nuts, a teaspoon of ground cinnamon and a few tablespoons of sweet red wine (Mahischewitz is the obvious choice, although I prefer to use something that actually tastes good).  It’s best if it sits a few hours before serving.  I made 3 recipes for 14 people, but 2 would have been enough.

It takes all of about 10 minutes to make the haroset.  Matzoh ball soup only takes maybe an hour of active work (and that includes making the stock), but it does require you to be home for the better part of a day (unless of course you’re happy leaving something simmering on the stove while you go out…me, not so much).

Happy Passover and happy eating!

I’m not sure why, exactly, but we got zucchini in the CSA box this week.  Since the farmers seem to be looking forward to summer, I thought I’d preview it too.  This deliciously sweet, summery sauce was just the thing.  Next time, though, I’d double the amount of zucchini the recipe called for, and increase the bechamel base accordingly.

Recipe

Source: Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking by Marcella Hazan

Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking

1 lb. zucchini (I’d double it, though)
1/3 c. milk (I ended up using more like 1/2 c. and if you double the zucchini you’ll need to double the milk)
1 tsp. flour (if you double the milk, double the flour)
1 egg yolk (if you double the milk, you might want to use two egg yolks)
3 tbs. butter (double if you double the milk)
2/3 c. chopped parsley or basil (I used parsley and it was delicious)
1/2 c. freshly grated parmesan cheese
1/4 c. freshly grated romano cheese
salt (I used about 1/2 tsp. + 3-4 tbs. for the pasta water)
1 lb. pasta (fusilli is what the recipe recommends, it was good, but I think this would be fabulous on fresh fettucine, too)
vegetable oil (I like to grapeseed because it has many of the healthy properties of olive oil but is flavorless and can stand up to high temperatures)

Clean the zucchini thoroughly, cut off the ends and cut the zucchinis in half the short way (so you end up w/pieces about 3 inches long).  Julienne the zucchini (cut it into little strips about 1/8 in. x 1/8 in. x 3 in. ).  Put 1/2 in. of oil in a large frying pan and heat over high heat.  Pat the zucchini as dry as you can with paper towels then fry the strips.  Don’t put too many in the frying pan at once or you’ll cool the oil down too much and have a greasy, soggy mess.  I have a 12 in. frying pan.  I did 1 lb. of zucchini in 3 batches and that seemed to work pretty well.  When the zucchini starts to turn a pale gold color, lift it out of the oil and spread it out on some paper towel to drain.  You can do the zucchini a couple of hours ahead if you want to.

Whisk together the flour and milk, making sure to break up any lumps of flour as best you can.  Beat the egg yolk with a fork.  If you’re using boxed pasta, put it on to cook in well salted water (if you’re using fresh, it cooks so fast you’ll want to get the sauce going first – I’d put the pasta in about the same time you put the zucchini in to the pan with the milk mixture).  About 5 minutes before the pasta is going to be done, melt 2 tbs. of the butter in a large frying pan on medium heat.  Once it has melted and the foam starts to subside stir in the milk mixture a little at a time.  It should end up quite thick and creamy.  Add a generous pinch (I used more like 1/2 tsp.) Put the fried zucchini strips in and stir to coat with the milk mixture.  If the milk mixture has cooked down so much that it doesn’t thoroughly combine with the zucchini, add a little more milk.  Take the pan off the heat and add the rest of the butter.  Once it has started to incorporate add the egg yolk and stir vigorously.  When you add the egg yolk, try to pour it on the zucchini and avoid pouring it directly onto the pan surface.  This will help decrease the chance that it will curdle.

Drain the pasta and toss it with the zucchini mixture.  Mix in the parsley and cheese.  Enjoy.

Recently I’ve been craving my standard weekday breakfast from my time in China: 煎饼 (jian bing).  Jian bing is a typical Beijing street food, sort of like a crepe and an omelet fused together, seasoned with delectable sauces, cilantro and green onion, then filled with a crunchy cracker.  Fortunately, before we left China, I thought to ask for the name of the main sauce.  It’s English name is sweet flour (or sweet noodle) sauce.  It did take a trip to China town and a bit of legwork to find, but I got it, along with shrimp sauce and Chinese chili paste.  Whole Foods supplied millet flour and I was ready to go.  You’ll want several basting brushes (preferably with heat-resistant silicone bristles) for applying the sauces.  Although it sounds like a lot of instructions, these are actually quite quick to make (aside from the wait time for the batter).

Recipe

1/2 c. millet flour
1/4 c. whole wheat flour
1 c. whole milk
5 eggs
3/4 tsp. salt
3 tbs. vegetable oil (plus more for frying)
2 tbs. roughly chopped cilantro
2 tbs. chopped green onion (scallion)
Sweet flour sauce
Shrimp sauce (optional)
Chili sauce (optional)
Wonton wrappers (you can often get these at the supermarket either fresh or frozen)

To make the batter, sift together the two kinds of flour and the salt.  If you can’t find millet flour, you can definitely experiment with other flour blends – all whole wheat, whole wheat and white, buckwheat, etc.  I would advise always using at least partially wheat flour (whole wheat or white).  I am not sure the batter will hang together well enough if you use all gluten-free flours, but if you are gluten-sensitive you could certainly experiment with 100% millet or similar.  In a blender combine 3 eggs, the milk and the sifted flour mixture and blend until smooth.  You can also do this in a bowl with a whisk.  Let the batter rest for at least an hour.  Just before you’re ready to start cooking, whisk in the 3 tbs. of oil (I used grapeseed, but you could use soy, peanut, or any other relatively flavorless vegetable oil – definitely don’t use olive oil, though).

To prepare to assemble jian bing, break the remaining 2 eggs into a small bowl and beat lightly (just to break up a bit).  Chop your cilantro and green onions and mix them together.  Put a tablespoon or two of the sweet flour sauce in a small bowl (I use a ramekin or custard cup) and blend it with a tablespoon or two of water to think it out to an easily brush-on-able consistency.  If your chili paste is very thick you may want to thin it a bit too.  Chili paste is often made with an oil base so you may find it easier to think with a bit of vegetable oil.  The same applies for shrimp sauce if you choose to use it.  I am not 100% certain that shrimp sauce is the right third sauce, but it was the only pink-ish sauce we saw and I remember there being a pink-ish sauce.  I made the first jian bing with the shrimp sauce to test it out and didn’t care for the flavor.  I think at least some jian bing makers may use it, but the ones whose jian bing I loved, maybe not.  In any case, I left it off the remaining ones.

To create the crunchy cracker filling, heat about 1/2 in. of vegetable oil in a pan.  When it’s very hot, slip in the wonton wrappers 1-2 at a time.  They should get large bubbles all over pretty quickly.  After a minute or two, turn them over and cook for another minute or so.  They should be a nice golden brown all over.  Drain them on paper towels.  I found that they tended to curve a little.  I put them concave side down on the theory that more oil would drain off that way.  Fry up one wrapper for each jian bing you intend to make.  With the size hot plates the jian bing makers in Beijing have, 1/person is plenty.  I found that 2-3/person of the size I have the facilities to make was about right.

Now you’re ready to begin cooking your jian bing.  Heat a large, frying pan (preferably non-stick, and preferably of the variety with relatively shallow, sloping sides) over medium heat or very slightly higher.  When the pan is hot, brush it with a bit of vegetable oil.  Pour in a few tablespoons of the crepe batter (don’t forget to whisk the oil into the batter first).  The amount you need will vary depending on the size of your pan.  Swirl the batter around quickly to coat the bottom of the pan thinly and evenly.  In China they then break an egg directly onto the crepe and spread it out in a thin layer.  Since their eggs are smaller and crepes bigger, I found that 1/2 egg/crepe is about right (I was using a 10 in. pan) which is why I break the eggs into a bowl and beat them a bit.  Pour a tablespoon or two of egg (about 1/2 egg) onto your crepe as soon as the top no longer looks liquid.  Smear the egg out to cover the top of the crepe in a thin layer.  Sprinkle on a little of the cilantro/scallion mixture.  As soon as the egg is no longer runny, flip your jian bing over.  Quickly brush the crepe with a thin layer of each sauce you’re using.  I usually cover the whole surface with the sweet flour sauce, but just put a little chili sauce on.  Place one of the fried wonton wrappers in the middle, and fold the side of the crepe up to cover the wonton wrapper.  Use your spatula to crumble the wonton wrapper up some.  Slide out of the pan and eat.  Yum!

The batter recipe should make 8-12 crepes, depending on size.   The total amount of egg, scallion and cilantro listed is actually only enough for about 4 10 in. jian bing.  Just figure 1 egg and 1 tbs. each of cilantro and green onion will make about 2 10 in. jian bing.  Use however many eggs and herbs you need for the number you want to make.

You can definitely cut the batter recipe in half if you want to.  I am also going to experiment with cooking extra crepes and freezing them so I need only defrost them and pick up with the “smear with egg” step.  Also, wonton wrapper tend to come in packs of about a zillion.  They can definitely be frozen, though.  I’ll probably separate them into small stacks, then wrap and freeze each stack separately so I don’t have to thaw dozens to get just 4-6 when I want to make some jian bing.  The sauces should keep pretty much indefinitely in the fridge.

If you have trouble finding the ingredients, you should be able to order them online.  Your best bet for sweet flour sauce is Asian Food Grocer.   Any supermarket will have some kind of chili paste/sauce that will do.  Shrimp paste/sauce is optional and you can definitely do without, but if you want to try it, Asian Food Grocer will probably work.  My Whole Foods had millet flour so that wasn’t a problem, but if you don’t find it, I googled it and found plenty of places to buy it online.  Or, as I mentioned, you can experiment with other flours.

A few notes on authenticity.  I am quite confident in my use of sweet flour sauce for the main sauce.  It definitely tasted right.  Similarly for the cilantro and green onion (although I’ve had some that used regular onion instead).  The crepe batter was pretty much a guess.  I just picked a whole wheat crepe recipe I’ve used before then substituted millet flour for some of the wheat flour.  I was pretty sure they’d use millet flour in China and the crepe it produced had the yellow-ish color and a similar taste and texture to what I ate in China.  I would guess they use soy milk rather than regular milk, but I opted for regular since I hate soy milk and would just end up throwing out whatever didn’t go into the batter.  Also, I have zero experience cooking with soy milk and had no clue how I might need to adjust the recipe to accommodate any differences in cooking characteristics.  Also, I suspect they may use less egg and more milk in the batter than I did, but don’t know for sure.  I am sure the crispy, friend filling crackers they use aren’t precisely like wonton wrappers, but wonton wrappers are a suitable size and produce just the right texture.  At any rate, what I produced was close enough to what I picked up every day on my way to work to satisfy my craving.

Dinner tonight reconfirmed for me how badly misguided are the stereotypes about the military which are so firmly entrenched in my mind.  For the first 90% of my life the only exposure I had to people in the military was through the movies.  The image I still struggle to overcome is of a testosterone-charged, sports-loving, hard-drinking bully.  I am perpetually astonished when I meet a new colleague of my soldier-husband’s.  Without exception these officers are courteous, kind, empathic, smart, intellectual, well-read and deeply engaged with world around them.  Our dinner guest tonight was no exception, a mid-level naval officer (I think of roughly equivalent rank to my husband, although I’ve only more-or-less managed to get a handle on army ranks, navy ranks are still totally opaque to me) winding up a fellowship at Harvard’s Kennedy school (see what I mean about smart?!). Nevertheless, for long stretches the conversation made me wish I’d picked a more complicated menu that demanded more time in the kitchen.  So often my husband’s chatter with his colleagues is about as comprehensible to me as that cab driver in Rome the day you step off the plane and try to dredge up something (anything!) you learned in your one year of college Italian 15 years ago.  “So this E7 said to the RL9 that if he didn’t get the PMX-81 to the J4 on the QT then the oodle-oodle-oo would be hugwhumped and we’d need a dozen P10s tomorrow.”   Unfortunately, the simple-but-delicious menu I’d selected afforded me no refuge in the kitchen.  I nodded and smiled and was eternally grateful that our very considerate guest stopped to translate for me now and then.

…Which brings me to the menu.  Marcella Hazan’s Lemon Roasted Chicken, pearl couscous, salad and chocolate mousse.  I love this menu because it requires minimal time in the kitchen, is elegant enough for guests, is delicious and everyone eats it (well…except vegetarians).  Substitute rice and even your gluten-intolerant friend can eat (and they’ll be so excited that you even made a dessert they can eat).

The couscous and salad are easy – no recipes required.  Cook couscous according to the instructions that come with it (you can use regular couscous if you can’t get the fabulous north African pearl kind).  I like to add a little salt and butter while it’s cooking.  Make your favorite salad and try the herb vinaigrette from my Snacking Around post or this simple mustard vinaigrette.

Recipe: Lemon Roast Chicken

Source: Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking by Marcella Hazan

Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking

1 3-4 lb. chicken (works just fine with larger chickens which are much more readily available)
2 small lemons
Salt
Pepper

Preheat the oven to 350°.  Remove the gizzards from inside the chicken.  Wash the chicken thoroughly in cold water (inside and out) and leave to drain for 10 minutes or so (set it on a slightly tilted plate).  Use paper towels to pat it completely dry.  Sprinkle plenty of salt and fresh-ground pepper on the chicken (both sides and don’t forget the inside) and rub it in.  Wash the lemons in cold water and pat them dry. Press down hard on the lemons while rolling them against the counter several times to soften them and loosen the juices then pierce them several times with a fork (in 4-5 places to get around 20 little holes). Put the lemons inside the chicken.  Close the opening by pulling the extra skin over the lemons and pinning the edges together with sturdy toothpicks or a trussing needle (look for these at Thanksgiving – they look like little skewers and usually come in packs of 5, sometimes with some twine).  If you want you can tie the legs loosely together with cooking twine, but I usually don’t bother.  Put the chicken breast-down in a roasting pan.  You do not need to add any fat or liquid.  Better yet, you don’t need to baste.  Starting the chicken breast-down ensures that plenty of juices will flow into the breast and keep it nice and juicy.  Pop the chicken in the oven.  You are going to cook the chicken for a total of 20 minutes per pound, turning the chicken over part way through and turning the temperature up at the end (timing follows, but first how to turn the chicken over).  Turning the chicken over is very easy if you have silicon oven mitts.  Just put them on your hands, grab the bird and turn it over, then wash the oven mitts.  If, like me, you don’t have silicon oven mitts you have two options.  One is to use regular oven mitts, just wrap them in tinfoil to keep them clean while you grab the bird.  The other, which I usually use, is to use tongs in my right hand to grab the bird and guide it and a spatula in my left hand to provide heft and force.  Now for the timing.  Cook the bird breast-down at 350° for 30 minutes, then turn it over.  Continue cooking at 350° until there are only 20 minutes left in the total cooking time (the time for this stage will vary depending on the size of your chicken).  Turn the oven up to 400° and cook for another 2o minutes.  You know the chicken is done if the juice that comes out when you cut deep into the thigh is clear.  If the juice is pink, put the chicken back in for a bit (note that the dark meat will look a little pink even when fully cooked so check the color of the juices).  Carve the chicken in the pan, then pour all the juices from the pan into a small pitcher.  Pour off a little of the fat that rises to the top if you want, then serve the juices as a sauce.  They are fabulous poured over the couscous.  Pour any remaining juices in with leftover chicken when you store it.  Leftovers are best at room temperature.  You can save the bones and carcass for making stock.

Active time: 15 minutes (total time varies depending on the size of the chicken but is about 1 1/2 hours)

Recipe: Chocolate Mousse

1 c. (6 oz., usually 1/2 package) chocolate chips (I prefer semi-sweet)
5 tbs. boiling water
4 eggs, separated
2 tbs. dark rum

Blend the chocolate chips in the blender until they are ground up fine.  Add the water and blend until the chocolate is melted and smooth.  Add the egg yolks and rum and blend again until smooth.  In a separate bowl, beat the egg whites until they stand in stiff peaks.  Gently fold the chocolate mixture into the egg whites until no white shows.  Spoon the mixture into individual serving dishes (I like to use my grandmother’s crystal sorbet/champagne glasses, but you can use ramekins or small bowls) and chill for at least an hour.